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The psychohistorian on the op-ed page

I cite Isaac Asimov’s influence on Paul Krugman a lot, but this is the most complete articulation of it I’ve yet seen—from the New Yorker profile:

Krugman explained that he’d become an economist because of science fiction. When he was a boy, he’d read Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” trilogy and become obsessed with the central character, Hari Seldon. Seldon was a “psychohistorian”—a scientist with such a precise understanding of the mechanics of society that he could predict the course of events thousands of years into the future and save mankind from centuries of barbarism. He couldn’t predict individual behavior—that was too hard—but it didn’t matter, because history was determined not by individuals but by laws and hidden forces. “If you read other genres of fiction, you can learn about the way people are and the way society is,” Krugman said to the audience, “but you don’t get very much thinking about why are things the way they are, or what might make them different. What would happen if?”



Can I make a confession? I hope you won’t kick me off the Snarkmarket comments if I do. Please don’t! (I’d be so sad . . .)

I’ve always wanted to read the Foundation series and I never have because I have no idea where to start and different people say different things about where to start. I’m *exceedingly* neurotic about spoilers and reading things in a suboptimal order, so I don’t even want to use Wikipedia to guide me. It occurs to me that this the highest concentration of trusted experts I’m likely to find anywhere, so: where do you guys think I should start?

Um, I’ve never read the Foundation series. Or any of Asimov’s books. Actually, I don’t read very much science-fiction, new or old. Ever.

Ha! I guess I just exhibited a textbook case of impostor syndrome. I feel better about not having read the Foundation series. I still want to though, and still want a recommendation on where to start.

But Tim! Why no science fiction?! The readers demand a post! 🙂

Michael Lang says…

Hi, Saheli. I’d say its safe to say Foundation is the first one you want to read. From there, if you want to read all things Foundation without spoiling any of the surprises, you practically have to read all of Asimov’s works in the order of their publication (Or at least the Foundation books, the Empire books & the robots books)

Whatever you do, don’t read Prelude to Foundation first.


Jake says…

I’m far from a diehard Asimov fan, but I actually re-read the first couple of books because Snarkmarket and others mentioned them recently. That’d be Foundation followed by Foundation and Empire. Impressions:
1. Asimov muses on ideas of glorious scales of time, space, and history through some seriously dull, clunky characterization. Somehow that wasn’t such a problem when I was in like 10th grade…
2. It’s not so much a triumph of technocracy as a demonstration of what statistics can do with very large values of n.
3. The lack of modern computerized communication networks is funny. Also, I’m pretty sure that in the future, nobody but Steampunks will manually close relays.
4. I should probably read some Gibbon, apparently Asimov’s inspiration.

Yeah, agree with Jake: prose-wise they are pretty clunky. But still a fun read (I think) especially if one imagines oneself a young Krugman.

I know there are technically more books than Foundation and Foundation and Empire, but those are the only two I read! And I only really remember Foundation clearly. There’s basically one key idea, one key kind of interaction (involving Hari Seldon), that drives the plot of the whole book, and it’s unbelievable and campy and totally great.

Sold! Though I am amused at how much opinions seem to differ on this. Maybe it’s my sample.

Do you think that’s what went wrong with economists? They got excited about psychohistory and then when things started to kind of look like they were doing psychohistory, there was a broad unexamined assumption that we knew what was up and that we’d tamed the markets and now with a few of the right adjustments to the right variables it was to be prosperity for all?

Kind of like how Second Life looked enough like Snow Crash that the media and academics started acting as though it was? And now few use or care about it?

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